Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
In Progress Expands Expression
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United Kingdom Supreme Court overturned a defamation ruling against Nicola Stocker for posting on Facebook that her ex-husband, Ronald Stocker, tried to strangle her. On 23 December 2012, in a conversation with the girlfriend of her former husband, Ms. Stocker said that that “he [Mr. Stocker] tried to strangle me.” She also said that her former husband had troubles with the law and violated a non-molestation order. Mr. Stocker sued his former wife for defamation, arguing that in her Facebook statement she falsely claimed that he attempted to kill her and painted him as a dangerous and disreputable person. The first instance and appellate courts ruled for Mr. Stocker on the grounds that a reasonable reader would understand Ms. Stocker’s statements as describing an attempted murder and that calling Mr. Stocker dangerous and disreputable was not justified. The United Kingdom Supreme Court overturned the lower courts’ judgments. Among other things, the Court determined that it was critical to consider that this post was made on Facebook where a reasonable user parsed information quickly and did not reflect on its content, and such a reader would not have determined that Ms. Stocker posted about an attempted killing.
Ronald Stocker was the former husband of Nicola Stocker. After their marriage ended, he began a relationship with Deborah Bligh. On 23 December 2012, Ms. Bligh and Ms. Stocker had a conversation on Facebook during which Ms. Stocker told Ms. Bligh that “he [Mr. Stocker] tried to strangle me.”
The alleged incident occurred on 23 March 2003. The former husband and wife had different recollections of the incident. According to Ms. Stocker, her husband was standing on a stool while she was fixing his pants. She pricked him with a needle. He swore at her, and she swore back. He then dismounted from the stool, pushed Ms. Stocker against a small sofa, put his hands around her neck and squeezed. She thought he was trying to kill her.
Mr. Stocker rejected Ms. Stocker’s recollection of the facts. He claimed that after his wife pricked him with a needle while fixing his pants, he and she swore at each other. He then put his hand over her mouth to prevent her voice from waking up their sleeping son.
Police officers who responded to the incident some two hours after it, noted red marks on Ms. Stocker’s neck.
Mr. Stocker brought a defamation complaint against Ms. Stocker. He argued that the meaning of the words “tried to strangle me” implied that he attempted to murder his former wife. Ms. Stocker denied that the words bore that meaning and explained that in the context of domestic violence, it meant that the former husband violently gripped her neck, inhibited her from breathing, and put fear in her of being killed.
In her Facebook conversation with Ms. Bligh, Ms. Stocker also mentioned that her former husband threatened her in the past, was arrested on gun related charges, and violated a non-molestation order. Mr. Stocker claimed that these statements were also defamatory since they implied that he was a dangerous and disreputable man. Ms. Stocker countered that the statement that Mr. Stocker was dangerous and disreputable was justified.
High Court Hearing
The High Court referenced the Oxford English Dictionary to determine that the verb “to strangle” had only two meanings: an act of killing by strangulation or painful constriction of the neck. The presiding judge agreed that Mr. Stocker put his hands over Ms. Stocker’s neck, causing her pain and leaving red marks. To him, Mr. Stocker’s act referred to the second meaning of the verb “to strangle.” However, Ms. Stocker’s use of the verb “to try” in her statement meant that she did not refer to solely a painful constriction of the neck, but implied that Mr. Stocker attempted to kill her. However, to the presiding judge, Mr. Stocker lacked the temperament or intention to kill Ms. Stocker. He made this conclusion on the basis of police testimony. With this in mind, the judge found that Ms. Stocker’s use of the term “he tried to strangle me” was defamatory because to an ordinary reader it meant that Mr. Stocker attempted and failed to kill his ex-wife.
The High Court judge also found that Ms. Stocker’s reference to her former husband’s arrests and threats were defamatory. It was true that Mr. Stocker was arrested three times, had gun issues, and made threats. However, these past actions did not prove that Mr. Stocker was a dangerous man. Thus, the impression given by Ms. Stocker’s “postings to the ordinary reader was a significant and distorting overstatement of what had in fact occurred.”
Court of Appeal
Ms. Stocker appealed the High Court judgment. First, she criticized the High Court’s Judge for using the dictionary because doing created a danger that words would be considered literally without regard to context. Second, she argued that the High Court Judge was wrong in concluding that Ms. Stocker intended to label Mr. Stocker as dangerous by referring to his past arrests and issues with the law.
The Court of Appeal dismissed Ms. Stocker’s arguments, having found that the High Court Judge referred to and applied the correct principles of law. On the question of using the dictionary, the Court of Appeal found that the High Court Judge’s actions were “understandable in the circumstances, did not lead him into error, and in my opinion his decision as to meaning was one that was plainly open to him.”
Supreme Court Appeal
On 9 July 2018, Ms. Stocker filed an appeal to the Supreme Court and posed two questions:
First, the Supreme Court criticized the High Court’s reliance on a dictionary to determine the meaning of the verb “to strangle,” as well as the appellate court’s acceptance of this definition. The Supreme Court explained that the High Court Judge referenced the dictionary before the trial and set the definition of “to strangle” to only two meanings: an act of constricting the neck and a killing by strangulation. To the Supreme Court this approach was dangerous because the dictionary meaning of the verb was removed from the context of when it was uttered. Further, “once the verb ‘to strangle’ is removed from its context and given two possible meanings before it is reconnected to the word ‘tried’ the chances of a strained meaning are increased.” [para. 26]
The Supreme Court then reviewed the “single meaning rule” and applied it to the case at hand. The rule requires the judge “to determine which meanings the allegedly defamatory words were capable of bearing and exclude those which she or he considered they were not capable of bearing.” [para. 32] Under the precedent of Jeynes v News Magazine Ltd, a court should consider the following criteria to determine the single meaning of an allegedly defamatory statement:
The Supreme Court added that just “because it [was] theoretically possible to come up with a meaning which [was] not defamatory, the court [was] not impelled to select that meaning.” [para. 37] According to the Supreme Court, the criteria above “emphasize that the primary role of the court is to focus on how the ordinary reasonable reader would construe the words. And this highlights the court’s duty to step aside from a lawyerly analysis and to inhabit the world of the typical reader of a Facebook post. To fulfill that obligation, the court should be particularly conscious of the context in which the statement was made.” [para. 38]
The Supreme Court then turned to the question of context. The Court stressed that the fact that Ms. Stocker made the allegedly defamatory statement on Facebook was critical to the analysis of context. “The judge tasked with deciding how a Facebook post or tweet on Twitter would be interpreted by a social media user must keep in mind the way in which such postings and tweets are made and read.” [para. 41] The Court noted that it “was unwise to parse a Facebook posting for its theoretically or logically deducible meaning. The imperative is to ascertain how a typical (i.e. an ordinary reasonable) reader would interpret the message. That search should reflect the circumstance that this is a casual medium; it is in the nature of conversation rather than carefully chosen expression; and that it is pre-eminently one in which the reader reads and passes on.” [para. 43]
Further, the Court added that Facebook was a fast moving medium, which limited the time its users spent on analyzing the content that they saw online. “[P]eople scroll through it quickly. They do not pause and reflect. They do not ponder on what meaning the statement might possibly bear. Their reaction to the post is impressionistic and fleeting.” [para. 44] Thus, to the Court these points only emerge as a result of close analysis, or someone pointing them out. An ordinary reasonable reader will not have someone by his/her side making points like this.”
Applying the legal framework established above, the Supreme Court ruled that the High Court fell into legal error by relying on the dictionary definition of the verb “to strangle.” Further, The Supreme Court found that the High Court “failed to conduct a realistic exploration of how the ordinary reader of the post would have understood it,” and did not take into account that Facebook users did not closely analyze Facebook posts. [para. 47] Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that considering the context, the obvious meaning of Ms. Stocker’s statement was solely that her husband grasped her by the neck.
The Court also concluded that Mr. Stocker strangled his wife long enough to leave red marks that remained on her neck for over two hours, breached a non-molestation order, had gun issues and may have threatened Ms. Stocker. To many, these actions would be sufficient to establish that Mr. Stocker was a dangerous and disreputable man. Thus, Ms. Stocker was justified in making her statements.
The Supreme Court granted Ms. Stocker’s appeal and ordered Mr. Stocker to reimburse the trial costs of the lower hearings.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This is a positive judgment for freedom of expression online. The judgment recognizes the unique nature of social media communication. Particularly that such communication is fast paced and its users may not analyze, pause or reflect on the comments that they post and read. In this context, courts have a “duty to step aside from a lawyerly analysis and to inhabit the world of the typical reader of a Facebook post” when determining the meaning of an allegedly defamatory social media post.
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